Monday, January 15, 2007

Buyer Beware

The Pizza Patrón topic leads me to a paradox I have been pondering since I came back from haggling in Morocco, about the nature of commerce.
In Morocco, in order to buy something at the souk, you have to go through an elaborate, sometimes theatrical ritual in which the vendor quotes you an outrageously inflated price and you start whittling him down until both of you reach an agreement. Some vendors try to apply pressure, some buyers pretend to walk away, but whatever the outcome, it is a complex, invigorating experience. With good negotiating skills both will be satisfied: the vendor will make a profit and you will go home thinking you got a bargain or that at least you paid a fair price. Pricing is completely relative: it hinges on the buyers making a decision of how much something is worth to them. A lot of people get ripped off with this system, but there is something intrinsically fair about it: you are certainly given the chance to negotiate and defend yourself. If you don't know how to do it, that's your problem.
Here in America, commerce has evolved into an intricate system of deception with the aid of that cardinal sin, marketing, and we're not really given much of a chance to defend ourselves, let alone negotiate. Just think about your phone/cable/internet company bill, your cellphone bill with its armed robbery charges you can do nothing about, airfares, hidden charges, the fine print, deceptive advertising, etc. You know they are killing you, but you are hung out to dry. There is nothing anybody at customer service can do about it. You pay what they decide and what they decide is usually usurious. To add insult to injury, try calling them and complain, only to speak to a robot for the first 10 minutes and to be put on hold for the next 40 and then speak to a moron who can't help you. Only very few companies have truly outstanding customer service and most of the time you are paying for it anyway.
The deception is far and wide ranging: certain food companies claim that their sugary products for children, which will cost you thousands of dollars at the dentist, are healthy because they have some added vitamin or mineral. Those products will make your children fat, diabetic and will make their teeth fall out. Some juices claim to be made with 10% juice (gee, thanks), some cheeses claim to be made with 10% real cheese (what the fuck is the rest, you wonder, the "lite" products have tons of added goo, the non-fat have tons of sugar. Everything is a lie disguised as a half-truth. Or think of planned obsolescence for every gizmo you buy. You get the newest mishegoss and two years later it fizzles and you need to "upgrade" to a still newer one. But everybody pretends that we have fairness in commerce. It is just not so. The way it works in the US of A may be the biggest ripoff of all.

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